Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gunks Routes: Immaculate Conception/Son of Bitchy Virgin (5.6) & Bitchy Virgin (5.5)

(Photo: Heading up pitch 2 of Son of Bitchy Virgin (5.6))

Good judgment.

It is important to have good judgment when climbing. As a leader, I hope I have it. It is important to me to think that I have it. Thinking I have it is probably almost as important to my leading as actually having it.

As I've edged back into pushing my limits this year, I've tried to be cautious. But I know enthusiasm can at times threaten my good judgment. And I have a lot of enthusiasm.

My friend and longtime climbing partner Liz is having a baby in the fall. She has continued climbing (though not leading anything) during her pregnancy. She was with me on Apoplexy (5.9) earlier this year, for example. As her pregnancy has progressed she's gradually been forced to accept that she has to dial it back to easier climbing. But she hasn't given up without a fight. She gamely followed me up Birdland (5.8) in May even though she struggled with the cruxes of both pitches. On another occasion, climbing not with me, she had to prussik through the crux while following Modern Times (5.8+).

I was looking for partners while I was in New Paltz for the week before July 4 with my family, so I was excited Liz was thinking about joining us. I didn't want to put either of us in a dangerous situation given that she was now about halfway through her pregnancy. So I promised her that if she joined us at our summer house in New Paltz in early July, I wouldn't push her to do anything hard. We could focus on 5.6 and below, which we felt would be easy and casual for both of us.

My first idea was that we should do the Bitchy Virgin climbs. I had never done them. The original route, Bitchy Virgin, has two pitches of 5.5, and the successor Son of BV ups the ante slightly with one pitch of 5.5 and a second that is 5.6. In between is a variation single-pitch climb called Immaculate Conception (also 5.6) which ends at the Son of BV anchor. If we did them all we'd get 5 pitches done in this one little spot. Liz hadn't tried these climbs either so she agreed.

When we arrived at the base of the climbs, I thought Immaculate Conception looked like the most interesting line. A couple steep moves past some suspect flakes about 15-20 feet up seemed like the crux.

Once we racked up, I enjoyed it. The crux steep bit past the flakes leads over a bulge to easier climbing at a lower angle. The flakes are creaky but I don't think they're popping out any time soon. Once over the bulge there is a little bit of a runout to the belay ledge, but this runout is through territory much easier than 5.6. At the belay ledge there is a station made from slings threaded around a boulder, but I elected to build a gear anchor in the good cracks right above the ledge instead, so we could both comfortably stand on the ledge and belay with the anchor above our hands.

If our first pitch, Immaculate Conception, was nice, pitch two of Son of BV was really quite nice indeed. The climb goes straight up, trending a little left. It is nothing but good face climbing. Clean, steep and sustained, with good moves and good holds. I have seen reports of inadequate pro, but I thought the pro was just good enough. The horizontals appear every so often, and I even passed up an opportunity or two to place something a little off line to the left and the right. This is definitely not a pitch that you can sew up, however, and if 5.6 is your lead limit this climb might not be the best one for you. With that caveat aside, I would say Son of BV is yet another high quality 5.6 in the Gunks, worth the two stars Dick bestows upon it (when linked with Immaculate Conception) and further evidence that 5.6 is one of the great grades at the Gunks.

The rap tree on the GT Ledge at the top of Son of BV bears watching. This muti-forked tree has some live branches, and some that are dead or dying. It has seen better days. We went ahead and used it, because it didn't look like it would be that easy to get over to the much bigger and healthier-looking tree atop Bitchy Virgin. Pretty soon, unless the tree atop Son of BV recovers a bit, we may not have a choice. I have seen worse rap trees in the Gunks, but I think at another time in my climbing life I would have insisted we use a different station to get off the cliff. It may be that I have mellowed a bit when it comes to using these sketchy rap anchors, and I'm not sure this is a good thing. Perhaps we should not have used it.

Liz had no trouble following me up either of our first two 5.6 pitches, so I thought the two 5.5 pitches of Bitchy Virgin would be a breeze for her. It was getting hot out but neither of us were concerned. We didn't stop to take a break. Once we returned to the base I went right at pitch one of Bitchy Virgin.

The pitch climbs a corner at the back of a little gully that goes between the main cliff and the left side of the Mantle Block. I was surprised to find the Bitchy Virgin corner a little dirty. I didn't see much evidence of other climbers, either. This was in stark contrast to Immaculate Conception, the climb we'd just finished to the left, which had tons of chalk on it, even though all the nearby climbs were only recently reopened after the peregrine nesting that closes a portion of the cliff every year.

Is Bitchy Virgin unpopular? Dick Williams gives it a star. Perhaps it is the little scramble up the gully to the start that puts people off?

Whatever the reason, I think if people are taking a pass on Bitchy Virgin they are missing out. In my opinion it is good, and a bit stiff for 5.5. Nice moves go up the corner, using the crack at the back for pro and sometimes for upward progress. Eventually there is a somewhat awkward struggle past a tree (admittedly this part of the pitch isn't so great), after which you move a little further up the corner, almost to its top, before obvious holds take you on a fun, short traverse with good pro to the outside arete and around onto the main face, about 10 to 15 feet above the belay station for Immaculate Conception/Son of BV.

If I'm right that Bitchy Virgin isn't getting much traffic, I think that's an injustice. It is not a superclassic 5.5 like Horseman or Ursula, but I've done much worse one-star climbs in the Trapps. It is a totally worthwhile climb, and there aren't enough quality 5.5's out there for it to get so little attention, in my opinion.

Once I built us a belay, Liz had no trouble following the pitch. There was no sign of any problem. She came right up. Things were still going well.

So I set off on pitch two, having fun. It seemed a lot like pitch two of Son of BV, but easier. Clean steep climbing with good holds.

I was about twenty feet off the belay when Liz called up to me to say that she wasn't feeling well.

Uh oh.

I guessed that she was maybe feeling a little sick to her stomach.

I stopped and asked her a question. "Do you think you'll be able to finish this pitch?"

"No," she said. "I feel like I'm about to pass out!"

Crap. Not good.

Clearly we needed to get down. I immediately chastised myself for taking Liz up a multipitch climb. She hadn't had any fainting episodes on the rock before, but it suddenly seemed patently unwise to have her belaying me 100 feet off the ground halfway through her pregnancy, in the bright sunshine, away from the food and water. What a stupid thing to do. Both of us should have known better.

I stepped down to the last piece of gear I had placed and thought about our options. Option one: I could place another piece or two and build an anchor from which she could lower me to the belay. This meant that we'd be leaving pieces behind, which of course was a secondary consideration but still something to think about. Also, what if she passed out while lowering me? She was tied in, so she wouldn't go anywhere, but what about me? I'd be falling through space. She was belaying me with a Cinch, which should lock off if she were to let go, but still... this was not an acceptable option. I supposed I could build an anchor, attach myself to it, then pull up the rope and rap. But this seemed very time-consuming. There had to be a better way.

Quickly I came up with option two: I could just downclimb back to her. This immediately seemed like the better idea. She'd keep me on belay, I wouldn't leave any gear, and if she lost consciousness I'd still be on the rock, and not relying solely on her Cinch to catch me. The climbing had so far been through easy territory and I was confident downclimbing would be no problem.

I racked my brain for another option, but these were the best I could come up with.

So I downclimbed the twenty feet back to her, going as fast as I reasonably could and all the while talking to her to make sure she was still with me. It didn't take long, and it seemed with each passing second that it was less likely she'd actually faint. Nevertheless I was relieved to get back to the belay and clip in.

Once we were together I lowered her from the belay ledge to the ground, and then I rapped off. Even as I lowered her it seemed that the crisis had passed, but it still made sense to go find some shade, have some fluids, and rest a bit.

On the ground we ate and drank and Liz soon felt better; we even resumed some single-pitch climbing after we took a break.

As crises go this wasn't a big one. No one actually lost consciousness. No one was hurt.

But still one can learn from these experiences.

Obviously some of our decisions could have been better that day. We probably should have made more of an effort to stay in the shade, and to take things slow. And while maybe we didn't have to rule out multipitch climbing completely, at the very least we should have brought up some food and water with us on the cliff. I think we were lulled into a certain complacency by the fact that the climbing was easy and things were going smoothly.

So we maybe should have been more careful not to get into the situation in which we found ourselves. With that said, I think we behaved reasonably when the issue emerged. And I think the decision I made to downclimb was the right one, under the circumstances. The most conservative thing to do would have been to build an anchor, leave the gear, and rap to Liz. That would have allowed me to descend to her without requiring any belaying from her. If the climbing had been more difficult this likely would have been the only reasonable choice. But since the climbing was so easy I think my decision to downclimb instead was correct; it was the less complicated solution and quicker as well.

Good judgment? I guess I'll give myself a B. Poor planning, but a decent recovery.


  1. Hey, Seth ... did you have Liz tie a backup knot in the brake line at your highest point? Would be a good, well, backup to flying through space, iff'n you didn't totally trust the Cinch. I'd say downclimbing was a good choice, btw.

    I've enjoyed P2 up there (can't remember which) and agreed that it wasn't as runout as the guidebook said. I've had P1 of BV on my list to go run up since a while. I love corners.


  2. Hey Julie, thanks for your comment, and I hope you're feeling okay, if you are that Julie.

    No, I didn't think of that knot idea. That would have been wise.